With both bewilderment and awe, I was initiated into the high-glitter world of baby products one recent weekend. I thought that I was prepared. Though my ego would like to report otherwise, I was wrong.
While planning our wedding, my now-wife and I were exposed to the deceptive machinations of the “wedding-industrial complex,” whose raison d’etre is to shame you into purchasing overpriced and superfluous goods and services so that your wedding guests will be impressed. Despite having more temptations than the Wonka-vator, we managed to resist spending money that we didn’t have on services that we would little remember. I’ve learned that the baby-product world offers similar challenges.
Fortunately, my expectant wife shares my penchant for minimalism. We’re not ones to clutter our home with trinkets and unnecessary “stuff,” but on this weekend we would be registering for baby showers, so a moment of weakness might lead to regrettable glassy-eyed decisions. Armed with the frugal confidence we’d acquired from the wedding experience, though, I felt prepared to parry the inevitable salvos that would be launched against my more impulsive side.
Now, one should know that unlike the wedding industry, where the consumer deliberately hop-scotches from the tailor to the photographer to the baker to the church to the caterer, the baby world is presented to the consumer largely under one roof, where everything is within reach and begging for attention.
Though there are no signs in these baby megastores to tell you where to begin or which way to go, the clever store designers eerily control your unwitting movement through the aisles. Analogous to the Death Star’s tractor-beam, I was being sucked into a veritable Champs-Elysees of elaborate displays and well-packaged baby products — except Ben Kenobi wasn’t there to tell me to “turn the ship around.”
Perusing like I had a foot caught in one of those tracked contraptions that moves cars through carwashes, I was exposed to the tools that are used in the boiler rooms of parenthood: bedding, bottles, strollers, diaper bags, diaper trash cans, etc — many of which I had seen and even used before with nieces and nephews, but never contemplated purchasing myself.
To my wife’s credit, her weeks of research and proverbial tire-kicking had softened the blow. She knew which products would be out of the question and had successfully narrowed to a palatable minimum the range of decisions that I would have to make. For her efforts, I was surprised to find that I was enjoying myself after the first couple of hours (yes, hours).
One product, however, proved to be just too much for me. Though my wife insisted on its necessity, I could not seem to justify the immediate expense or the lasting consequences of owning what is known as a “wipe warmer.” This silly apparatus claims to “take the jolt out” of wiping a baby’s undercarriage by warming the moist “baby wipes” to a more balmy temperature. As if “room temperature” is somehow abusively cold. This is one of those shame products that you’re supposed to buy so that you don’t raise the ire of visitors to your baby nursery. (“Did you hear? The Gresses are not warming their baby wipes! Unconscionable! Don’t they know that their baby could get Sudden Sphincter Frostnip?”)
Before moving to Washington, D.C., I worked as a mountain guide in the Rocky and Cascade mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest, leading winter mountaineering and backcountry skiing excursions. On extended trips, toilet paper often consisted of carefully shaped snowballs — so I’m not at all sympathetic to the idea that my kids cannot stand a mildly cool wipe of the bum that lasts about two thirds of a second.
What most concerns me about the wipe warmer is the attitude it could engender, and that I’ll one day wake up to realize that I have raised exceedingly effete and spoiled children who cower from any “jolt” or discomfort. I fear that they will recoil from worthy pursuits that involve suffering, like studying and work, and worry how they will react to the compulsory sufferings of life. I do not know whether our kids will take up pursuits such as mountaineering like their father, or marathon running like their mother — two pursuits which can stockpile suffering, but can also develop degrees of character and confidence not found in, say, videogames. But I’d at least like them to be comfortable with austerity and quiet in the face of adversity. In short, the wipe warmer represents an affront to everything that I want my kids to be.
Hopefully they’ll develop a sense of determination that is illustrated in a modest act that I witnessed in a back corner of Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church in Sun Valley, Idaho, some years back: An elderly man, seemingly an octogenarian, slowly ambled his way towards a pew, cane in hand to mitigate his debilitating limp. Selecting one of the pews closest to the church entrance, he braced himself with one hand on the pew, the other on his cane, as he knelt down to genuflect, dropping his knee all the way to the floor and tenuously making the sign of the cross. Thereafter, his whole body tremored as he fought Newton with all four limbs to regain his stance, which he did after what seemed an eternity to the observer. He then shuffled into the pew and sat down, blending in with the rest of the parishioners from my vantage.
The elder man’s anguished act of piety burned itself into my memory. Given his condition, he could be forgiven for not genuflecting at all. Had they existed at the time, I’m quite certain his parents would not have owned a wipe warmer when they were raising him.
As a young priest once asked me: Should one sin to avoid suffering, or suffer to avoid sinning? Admittedly, the wipe warmer is morally neutral, but the mindset of deflecting every possible discomfort, regardless of how trivial, isn’t necessarily. I only hope that I can, for their sake and that of the civilization they’ll inherit, shield my children from being overly shielded.
– Jay Gress is an expectant father and a graduate student of statecraft and national security at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.